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Shift on illegals sends wrong message

11 August 2008 937 views No Comment

ABC television’s satire The Hollowmen introduced Australians to a type of professional unfamiliar to many citizens: the federal government policymaker.

In reality, unless reasoning is clear and ideology is jettisoned, policy making can have unintended deleterious consequences.

Take, for example, the Coalition’s Work Choices and the Rudd Government’s tax hike on ready-to-drink alcopops.

While it may be too early to definitively conclude whether the increased tax on premixed alcopops has reduced binge drinking, especially among young women and men, early evidence suggests this policy hasn’t achieved its intended goal and has possibly led to an increase in alcohol intake among the target population.

Even more than industrial relations and alcohol policy, decisions about immigration policy have been, and are, fraught with difficulties.

In 1992, the Keating government wanted to address the growing community concern regarding the arrival of illegal immigrants. With bipartisan support it introduced a policy of mandatory detention.

At the time, immigration minister Gerry Hand said the changes would allow the faster processing of refugees and save the cost of individuals being maintained within the community.

Two years later, prime minister Keating again toughened up the legislation, removing the 273-day limit and allowing the detention of all “unlawful non-citizens”.

Over the next five years, illegal immigrants continued to arrive in boats, culminating in more than 3000 arrivals in 1999 and, finally, the Tampa.

This influx of illegal immigration led to the so-called Pacific solution, redrawing our migration zone. The Howard government reaffirmed its commitment to mandatory detention and excised territory from Australia for migration purposes.

The Howard government not only developed offshore processing facilities but also acted in a decisive manner, demonstrating that, in order to stop illegal arrivals, they were prepared to turn boats around at sea.

Kim Beazley’s Labor Opposition supported these changes.
With the introduction of the Pacific solution, illegal arrivals stopped altogether for a time and, up to now, have never again risen to more than a trickle.

This policy was not without opposition, especially among a strident minority. The Cornelia Rau affair and concerns about the detention of children produced vigorous community debate. The Coalition’s own back bench raised concerns about the matter, while the Opposition was hamstrung by a fear of appearing weak on national security.

In 2005 the Howard government began to soften some aspects of the detention policy, particularly with respect to children. Yet, in 2008, surveys suggest that mandatory detention is still popular with a majority of the general public.

So, like it or not, the majority of Australians continue to agree with the notion, proclaimed by Howard in 2001, that “we will decide who comes to this country”.
In the light of the above, consider the Rudd Government’s recent changes to mandatory detention.

Last month, Immigration Minister Chris Evans announced that while the Labor Government was going to maintain the mandatory detention policy for asylum-seekers, the new policy concerning possibly illegal immigrants would relax some aspects of the process, allowing arrivals to live in the wider community unless it was shown that they posed a risk to the public.

Similarly, people visiting Australia who overstayed their visa would not be automatically detained but allowed to remain within the community until their situation was resolved.

Perhaps this shift reflects the situation that, due to the economic downturn, national security matters are rated as having less priority than the possibility of a recession biting deep into our way of life, including home ownership.

On the other hand, as has been suggested by Christopher Pyne, the Opposition spokesman for justice and border protection, there is the danger that this shift in immigration policy may, inadvertently, send a message to people smugglers that Australia is open for business again.

Being able to stay within the Australian community as an asylum-seeker surely increases the propensity and possibility of people absconding, making it difficult to track or locate them.
Knowing this, people smugglers could well use this new situation to encourage prospects who aren’t genuine refugees to attempt to enter Australia.

The opportunity for potential illegals to live within our wider community until their cases were resolved could have unintended negative consequences. For example, some of those arriving here knowing they are unlikely to meet the legal requirements to remain would almost certainly be encouraged to “disappear” within Australia.

Another connected concern is the threat of terrorism.
While no visa overstayers in Australia have as yet been involved in terrorist activities, at least three of the September 11, 2001, hijackers were in the US illegally, while two had previous immigration violations. Prior to 9/11, rather than pursuing visa overstayers, the US Immigration Services concentrated on smugglers and other criminals.

With its changes to Australia’s immigration policy, Rudd Labor is running a significant risk. There will be little sympathy for a weakening of our border protection if the numbers of arrivals begin to rise. There is little sympathy for visa overstayers who flout our laws.

While it has been easy to placate a vocal minority with immigration policy changes, if more illegals start to arrive, and stay, within Australia, it will be a hard sell for the PM to convince working families and battlers of the benefits.